Life's not easy when you're a seabird ... and pelagic species like albatrosses and petrels have it the worst. They have to cover huge distances when foraging for food and often spend a lot of time in international waters. Add to this some reproductive difficulties like delayed sexual maturity and low numbers of offspring and you can see why keeping the population thriving is quite a challenge.

Albatross Flying 2014 05 06
A sub-adult black-browed albatross with a discarded hake head scavenged from a trawler. Image: BirdLife South Africa

Then there's the even bigger problem of 'death by trawling vessel'. When food foraging is a number one priority, a ship surrounded by discarded fish guts is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Attracted by the plentiful spoils that are discarded by fishing boats, many seabirds fall victim to overhanging trawling cables or wind up entangled in fishing nets. In 2004/2005, approximately 15,500 seabirds were killed annually as a result of cable strikes in the South African deep-water hake trawl fishery, with albatrosses making up the majority of the mortalities.

But before you bury your head in eco-sorrow, there's light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike so many other complex conservation concerns, this problem appears to have a pretty simple solution: streamers. No, we're not talking about the flimsy party decorations that litter your front lawn after a New Year's celebration. These streamers are a little more robust. Attached to a 30-metre rope that trails behind trawling vessels, the fluttering streamers have proven highly effective in confusing and distracting pelagic seabirds that have a habit of getting tangled in fishing nets.

So how effective are the 'party ropes'? New research that assesses mortality figures from South Africa shows that a simple 'bird scaring line (BSL)' can reduce the mortality rate by over 90 percent, with albatross deaths showing the most noticeable declines. Not bad for a solution that costs only about $200 USD per fishing vessel!

Fishing Trawler Bird Scaring Line 2014 05 06
A hake trawler attracts the attention of masses of seabirds. The bird scaring lines with the orange buoy are visible off the stern of the vessel. Image: BirdLife South Africa

Seabird deaths were recognised as a major problem when the South African hake industry applied for a certificate from the Marine Stewardship Council in 2004. The bird-scaring tactic was first implemented in 2006, helped by pressure from European consumers who demanded that their hake be fished in the most environmentally friendly way possible. No one expected the BSLs to be this successful.

“It was a huge drop [in the number of bird deaths], so much so we had to relook at our data to make sure we had got it right. But it was right and it’s a fantastic result,” Bronwyn Maree, leader of the albatross task force for Birdlife South Africa told the Cape Times.

Although it remains to be determined whether or not fishing vessels deploy the BSLs correctly when they don't have a researcher keeping watch, the statistics are definitely reason for celebration.